Monthly Archives: May 2015

Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”

plastic trash

No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.

l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—

— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…

garbology book— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.

— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).

— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is; there is a lot of material on their website.)

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.

Plastic-free---possible but difficult?

Plastic-free—possible but difficult?

I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…





Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.


Planning the Minimalist-Eco-Leaf Road Trip

ev trip map for blog

A portion of the potential route, where back-roads will be involved to link fast chargers. The leg from Harrisburg to State College, PA, is just long enough (almost 90 miles) that a stop at a Level-2 charger midway might be required. In this case we’ll have to use the charger we’re bringing with us, because the “Level-2” spots in this case are 220-volt outlets at RV parks, some of which aren’t marked on the Plugshare site.

I mentioned the other week how there are dramatically more DC fast chargers in the US than there were a year ago, and how I could drive an EV, hypothetically, all the way to the Midwest using mostly fast chargers. Well, it might be time to put my money where my mouth is—I’m thinking about taking a long-distance Leaf ride, from here in Vermont to the far side of Illinois, to see friends and relatives. I might be crazy.

Then, to add to that craziness, the family wants to go along, less one kid who will be away for the summer. That’s still four people in the Leaf, however. We’ve done road trips like this before, with and without kids, and we usually tent camp along the way. But, let’s just contrast this potential operation with, say, a similar family outing to Maine three years ago. In that case, we had a full-size pickup truck, which was pulling a largish pop-up camper, and two dogs, and the camper and the back of the truck were packed with firewood and bikes and dog food and lawn chairs and a carpet and coolers and all manner of other items. This time—we only have the back of the Leaf. Now, the Leaf isn’t tiny, but in terms of taking it on a family camping trip, it’s going to require some minimalism.

So, here’s the tentative minimalism camping plan—we’re going to pack almost as if we’re backpacking. I’m thinking, a much smaller tent (the “sleeps-eight” tent is on its last legs, anyway), food that doesn’t need cooked or refrigerated (which saves us the stove and dishes and dishsoap and cutting boards and coolers and ice and stops to buy ice, etc.), and for each of us—a duffel-bag with a few sets of clothes and toiletries, one sleeping bag, one folding camp stool, one headlamp, and some books to read. Then some charging equipment—a heavy-duty extension cord, the Level-1 charge cord that comes with the car, and our Level-2 charger that is portable and has a 220v plug. That’s it. Should fit nicely in the back, and still leave room to see out the rearview mirror.

But, the great big question is how and where to charge the car for a trip like this. Just two years ago, when there were virtually no public fast chargers, it was quite challenging, as witnessed by the film “Kick Gas”, where a group of EV enthusiasts spent 44 days going across the US in a variety of electric vehicles, including a Leaf. It’s a great film; here’s the trailer—

Fast chargers, however, will make it easier, as they will charge a Leaf in about 45 minutes, or even less if the battery is only partially empty. So I logged onto, and started to map out a route to Illinois that links fast chargers together, so we could hop from charger to charger. Now, to back up a bit—a Nissan Leaf will go, in the summer when it’s warm, about 100 miles between charges if you keep your speed down a bit. So in the perfect world we’d have fast chargers nicely spaced out up and down the interstates, at 60 or 70-mile intervals (it takes slightly longer to charge the top 10% or so of the battery, so it would be most efficient, in terms of time, to charge to 80 or 85 percent each time, and then drive 60 or 70 miles and then charge again, which would also leave a bit of a range buffer). Needless to say, we’re not there yet. My optimistic prediction of hopping between fast chargers was a tiny bit premature; closer perusal revealed that not all the fast chargers that first pop up on the Plugshare maps will work. Some of them are Tesla Superchargers, so I turned the icons for them off (Telsa owners can use other types of fast chargers with an adapter, but non-Tesla EV’s can’t use a Supercharger).

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal---if you have a Tesla.

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal—if you have a Tesla.

Some other fast chargers have DC-Combo plugs, which also won’t work with a Leaf, so I turned those icons off, too. Then, some of the ones that remained and are Leaf-compatible (stations with CHAdeMO plugs, which is actually the most common setup) appear to be planned but not finished, or not turned on yet, or broken, or for some other reason not fully functional. This still left quite a few, though, and it appears that I can get to Illinois by taking a big curvy loop, from here south and east into Massachusetts and Connecticut, then across the top of New York City and down toward Trenton, New Jersey, and then due west from there, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. But, the best charging locations aren’t exactly in a perfect line, so the route is going to end up with some zigs and zags in it.

So, a great big loop with zigs and zags, and… a few gaps. In a few cases these are just gaps where the fast chargers aren’t close enough together, where we’ll have to juice up a bit at a Level-2 station in the middle somewhere. But, some gaps don’t have any public stations at all, so for those I found a secret weapon, the…  Good Sam’s RV website, with its Google map interface. This is because if no chargers are available, a backup plan (and I got this idea from the Kick Gas movie) is to stop at, or spend the night at, a campground; they nearly all have 220-volt hookups for RVs, where we can plug in the Level-2 charger (or worst case, spent the night while charging with 110-volt charge cord).

good sam snip for blog

A Good Sam’s Club map with an overlay of RV parks—a good backup for areas with no public chargers.

One of those fast-charger-gaps is between Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis, IN. Part of that can be solved by looping down to Cincinnati and then back up, but no matter how you slice it, there is a 100-mile gap to get to Indianapolis from the east, a gap where there aren’t any chargers at all. Here’s where that campground in the image, on I-74 north of Adams, Indiana, might save the day. I’ll call them; maybe we’ll spend the night. It’s called “Hidden Paradise Campground,” and appears to be on a river with wooded banks; it might not be a bad spot to pause.

So, I initially considered going all the way to Texas to see the rest of the relatives by toodling along in this fashion (informal definition of “toodle along” that I found on the internet—“to go somewhere in a rather relaxed, happy-go-lucky way. No stress, no pressure, no rush, just enjoying the journey”) (I’ve always heard this phrase used like this, but I’m still not sure it’s a real word), but it’s a bit of a charger-desert west and south of Indianapolis, so it would be pretty slow going. Even the Leaf-portion where the fast chargers are won’t be speedy, there will be a certain minimalism to the average travel day that will be required—walking around a new place, reading a book in the shade, hanging out with the kids, having an ice-cream cone, enjoying the now. I’m looking forward to it. If we do decide to continue on, it might be on a train, which is another travel mode with a low carbon-footprint. Either way, this is the year to do the adventure-trip—a year ago it wouldn’t have been quite possible, and a year from now there might be enough fast chargers, all in a line and 60 miles apart, that such a trip becomes something rather ordinary.

But this trip, this summer, might be a fun challenge. I’ll keep you posted.

The new grey Leaf, the replacement for the black one when the two-year lease was up. It's being charged with solar here at the house, and ready for a road trip.

The new grey 2015 Leaf, the replacement for the black one when its two-year lease was up. It’s being charged with solar here at the house, and it’s ready for a road trip.

Supercharger image: Steve Jurvetson, “Tesla Supercharging in Gilroy”, Flickr Creative Commons.